We've reported on the stunning win of Charles Shaw Chardonnay at the California State Fair, where the wine (popularly known as Two Buck Chuck) took the Best in California and Best in Class awards. Some might consider that an example of how an unbiased blind tasting can find a deserving bargain wine to be superior to much more costly wines. The LA Times, though, calles it a "gaffe."
The Charles Shaw win may sound crazy, but wine industry insiders familiar with the organization and structure of competitions aren't surprised at the results. Dozens of wines at each competition win gold medals, double-gold medals, best-of-class awards and other hyperbolic distinctions. And there are dozens of competitions around the country, making it possible for any wine, even Two-Buck Chuck, to win prestigious-sounding awards.
"I can see how it happens, giving Charles Shaw a double-gold, particularly with Chardonnay," says Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. He judges at three competitions a year. "You are sitting there as a judge, you've tasted two flights of 10 Chardonnays that are very austere -- and I like those wines -- then a wine comes along with a touch more fruit, a little more rounded, and it stands out. And you hang your hat on it as a judge." (From Wine competitions: a few gaffs [sic], a lot of golds.)
The article notes that tasting is an imperfect science, and that many judges have minimal qualifications. Wineries often enter many competitions, and count on luck and random variations to pick up at least a few medals. And there are indeed plenty of medals to win. "In addition to the Charles Shaw, the judges considered 68 of the wines to be so extraordinary that they were awarded double-gold medals, meaning a panel unanimously agreed that the wine was gold medal quality. An additional 230 wines were awarded gold medals; 823 wines received silver medals; and 407 wines won bronze medals. In all, 10% of the wines entered in the competition received gold or double-gold medals, and half walked away with some kind of medal."
Admittedly, one doesn't often see wineries making a big point of their bronze medals. But at that one competition alone, almost 300 wines walked away with gold! Nearly 70 scored a double gold. So, the next time you see a wine bottle touting a gold medal or two, you might want to discount that as a major indicator of distinctive quality.
Do wine competitions actually make major errors? It seems inevitable that a small number of judges tasting dozens of wines in a short period of time will make a few poor decisions.
One reality is that the best wines may never get entered in the competitions - less costly wines are often entered in the hope of snagging medals and boosting sales.
The LA Times article reports that Andy Perdue, editor in chief of Wine Press Northwest, assembled a panel to taste 250 gold-medal winning wines. The panel found 15% undeserving of the gold medal status. While I suppose that this finding might give one pause about any gold medal claims, I think it can be viewed in a positive manner: 85% of the gold medal winners were independently verified as deserving. Presumably, even some of the 15% rejected by the review panel weren't that bad; the rejection might have been due to subjective preferences, bottle variations, etc.
My conclusion? Take the gold claims with a grain of salt, but if the wine is a gold winner in multiple major competitions, odds are it's actually quite a decent wine. If the odds of a gold medal wine being really gold quality are 85% for a single winner, I'd estimate the probability of a double gold (in two different major competitions) winner being gold quality go up to a percentage in the high 90s (97.5%, by my calculation). Of course, all wine competitions aren't equal, but multiple wins should usually be a good indicator of quality. Be sure to read the fine print, though, to see what was won where.
My advice: go for the golds, the more, the better.